Sunday, March 09, 2008

Chinese parents need to stop forcing their kids to play the piano/violin

A few years ago, the news reported a spate of Chinese children cutting off their own pinky finger, so that their parents would stop forcing them to play the piano. These kids detested the piano, but their parents wouldn't listen, so they mutilated themselves as a desperate measure.

Today I will write about why it's bad to force your kids to play the piano over their continuous objections.

(This also applies to the violin or trombone or any musical instrument.)

I am not talking about the case where little Jimmy likes the piano and occasionally gets stuck, and his dad delivers a pep talk that gets Jimmy over the hump and back to happy-land. I'm also not talking about the case where the kid vacillates between liking and disliking the piano, and his mom encourages him to stick with it long enough to give it a fair chance.

I'm talking about the situation where a kid has played the piano long enough to know whether he likes it (let's say a year), and then consistently states his dislike of it, over the course of many months. In that case, the parent should let him quit. Alas, many do not. Many parents, especially Chinese ones, resort to years of threats, cajoling, bribery, shouting to force their child to continue.

This harms the child much more than the benefit he gets from playing the piano.

The merits of learning a musical instrument are oft repeated by the well-intentioned parent:
- learning discipline
- enjoyment later in life
- Mozart makes you smarter

Rarely have I heard anyone discuss the damage done by forcing the kid. I can state it in one sentence:

By thwarting the child's natural inclinations, day in and day out, you teach him to stifle his intuition.

There is a popular book Now, Discover Your Strengths, which is lauded amongst many Fortune 500 companies. Its premise is that people achieve maximum success (and enjoyment) by channeling their time into activities that they enjoy and excel at, and minimize time spent on tasks they dislike or struggle with.

As an example, let's say an executive loves coming up with new product strategy, and hates public speaking. Instead of getting a speaking coach to do hours of remedial training, the executive would focus his time on strategy and hire a representative to give talks on his behalf.

Of the people I've met over the years, the most successful ones followed this philosophy.

Another thing they do is follow their intuition. They trust their gut, and then learn from the outcome, which hones those instincts. Over a lifetime, their intuition becomes attuned to coming up with the next innovative idea, or the smartest strategy.

This is the very thing that takes a blow when the parent insists that the child ignore his passionate biases. It may be good for raising a drone -- a slightly smarter than average drone if we believe the Mozart effect. But if you want to foster creativity and that precious spark of innovation? Trust your kid to know their own mind.

When I was 13:

Me: "I want to quit the piano."

My mom: "No."

[many variations on this]

My mom: "When you grow up and become an adult, you'll thank me."

Me: "I will not."


I was right.


Unknown said...

Ah, you finally got to posting about this topic - terrific!

You are absolutely correct that current management theory/thinking is that instead of trying to improve one's weaknesses, one should concentrate on their strengths.

Chinese/Asian parents can be especially stubborn!

Maybe you can write a novel about a child who was tormented by her mother forcing her to learn the piano and take lessons year after year, and then becomes a ... well, I'll leave this "fictitious" ending to you :-)

Anonymous said...

Can you still play? Do you? Did you at least gain musical/rhythmic skills to kick ass at Rock Band/Guitar Hero?

true story: my adult cousin regrets quitting piano lessons. He's taking lessons now, actually, and he's not bad.

But then again, my mom was/is a piano teacher. In fact, she was my piano teacher and she still let me quit after Gr 3 (don't know what the equivalent US term would be) since I was dreadfully uncoordinated. And come to think of it, I don't really regret quitting.

(I kinda wish I played the trumpet, or turntables, but that's neither here nor there.)

Unknown said...

Lol. So is Tom thankful now ?

Adam Sweet said...

I was one of those children who was brow-beaten, forced, yelled-at and generally beaten into the ground to keep with the violin until I graduated from High School, then "strongly encouraged" throughout college.

But unlike you, I found a new love - fiddling - and exclusively play that style of music. Without my classical upbringing, I wouldn't have had the confidence to go out there and play like I do now.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of strengths, perhaps you should combine your influence and web-savviness and have a bookstore link (e.g. Amazon link) to the book jpeg in your posting. Be rewarded for your zeal!

Anonymous said...

Haha.. I'm Asian and I was forced to learn the piano and it was HELLISH.

But now I do appreciate the little bits of piano I can remember, although I wished my mom didn't force me to learn Classical piano since the Richard Clayderman stuff was pretty fun.

William said...

Oh man.. spoken like a true asian kid. I finally persuaded my mom to stop taking me to lessons after 9th grade with the excuse that the practice time is conflicting with my schoolwork.. haha.

I switched from piano to violin; both not fun. Piano was not melodious; violin was like "killing chicken".

A senior myself, I found it interesting to note that my high school's orchestra is dominated by asians while the band is mostly consisted of white kids.

Anonymous said...

"Another thing they do is follow their intuition. They trust their gut, and then learn from the outcome, which hones those instincts. Over a lifetime, their intuition becomes attuned to coming up with the next innovative idea, or the smartest strategy."

Sure, successful people do that. But unsuccessful people do that too. The difference is that the unsuccessful people have _terrible_ intuition, _and_ are nearly incapable of learning from experience.

Anonymous said...

what's your position on baths? My 7-year-old wants to know ;)

anyway, FWIW, the Mozart effect is about listening, not playing music. In addition, there's evidence suggesting you have to enjoy the music for it to have an enhancing effect. Not to mention the only effects shown are short-lived.

(We also don't just use 10% of our brains and that whole thing about right-brained vs. left-brained people is bunk. Just sayin')

KwangErn Liew said...

It's very unlikely that a person can change a person's set mind. ;) If you hate it, you'll hate it no matter what, and even though it brings you benefits, you will still hate it. This is the power of the mind.

That said, I don't advocate abuse. And one shouldn't take an extreme case and discount it's potential benefits/advantages.

It's the approach that matters in the end. Just as how marketing deceived us, while some have made us hate.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think Chinese parents need to stop forcing their kids to go to school. :)

-A Chinese guy

Anonymous said...

Hmmm ...

Remember when you said that you were having trouble singing until someone explained to you how to sing? If you'd gotten this kind of instruction from your piano teacher, would that have been worth sticking with the piano lessons a little longer?

Of course, if your piano teacher was the teacher from hell, you were definitely better off without him or her. And if you'd reached the point where there were other things you'd really rather be doing that were also necessary for your career, I can't blame you for not wanting to play. But especially for a young child, when it's not yet known whether the lack of interest is due to something like frustration or unrealistic expectations, letting the child quit isn't always a good idea. On lots of the music-related sites and forums I participate it, it's a common complaint, especially among adults, that they wish someone hadn't allowed them to quit. They now know how much happier they would be having worked hard in the past, because it's much harder to reach the same level of competence as an adult, due to a lack of time, other commitments, certain neural pathways being more difficult to form, etc.

Incidentally, there can be other benefits to sticking with an instrument, if the student doesn't play for the rest of his or her life. Exposure to music can aid other endeavors, such as dance or audio engineering.

Anonymous said...

Niniane, You cannot imagine how many times I've thought about this issue, that Asian parents should stop forcing their children to do something they hate, and instead, encourage them to do something they love.

As one CAW (chinese american woman) to another, I love your blog, and started one of my own, to allow me to read and write, which is what I love, instead of playing the piano.

Jack said...


Well, I'm always skeptical about these arguments that work back to blaming parents for a shortcoming. Of course, my parents never made me play an instrument and were relatively lax.

Can this idea be extend to activities like going to church, doing homework, exercising, or learning a foreign language? I guess the trite thing to say would be to keep a balance and leave it at that.

Of course, I'm not advocating abuse, even a balance of it.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure. While it is very tempting to agree with what you say, my experiences have been to the contrary. As a child I hated taking piano lessons but my mother insisted that I was good and I should continue. I remember even being dragged once to the class in tears! Around the same time, my dad was tutoring me mathematics. This was initially met with resistance, followed by a grumpy following, and later an obsession. If my parents had trusted my intuition, I would have neither been a math PhD nor a church organist -- I would have probably frittered away my adolescent years. I am glad they didn't.

PS: Neither of my parents are Asians.

N said...

re: most recent Anonymous.

W.r.t. your dad teaching you math, I do recognize that "initial resistance" can later give way to enjoyment, which is why my blog post only applied to kids who have stuck with it long enough to form an accurate assessment. I gauged this period of time as one year.

Anonymous said...

i wish i had this problem. my parent's couldn't afford to give me piano lessons even if i wanted them. (which i did) sometimes it's alright to be grateful for having parents forcing you to do something that can be seen as a luxury to others...

Adam Sweet said...

Niniane, I have really enjoyed this post and subsequent comments. I have urged my existing students and their parents to read it. It has certainly already made quite a difference in many people's lives here in western Massachusetts!

If anything, parents of my students are finding ways to encourage rather than brow-beat and threat; older students are thinking about why they are interested in learning, and finding ways to motivate themselves; and I personally am feeling much better about the decisions I have made in my life that allowed me to keep music as important now as it was when I was a kid (even though I hated it then).

Thank you again,

Adam R. Sweet

Anonymous said...

Some of you might wish to read some Q&A from a respected piano teacher, including comments about children who want to quit. In particular, Question 157 may be of interest, because it concerns a student who wants to quit who is also talented in math.

FWIW, as sorry as some of those kids may have felt having been forced to practice piano, they're most likely much sorrier not to have their pinkies.

N said...

re: gregbo. That was an interesting point in the article about having the parent sit with the child during every practice, for the entire practice.

I bet if my mother was required to do that, she would have let me quit.

Anonymous said...

btw, i was inspired by you to read the book you mentioned. Thanks.

I guess one of your signature themes is communication, because you certainly excel at that.

Anonymous said...

Piano may not be important. But, what is important is just in the eye of the beholder. I personally think learning Spanish is more important than piano. But, I do not pass judgement on other parents who disagree with me. Chinese parents may think it is ridiculous to force their children to learn Spanish. So they can make the same prejudicial remarks that you have made.

We raise our children differently based on our different value system. We would certainly not be biased against a christian family forcing their children to memorize the bible (Jews with their Torah).
Why be biased against Chinese with their piano.

Anonymous said...

Oh god you are so right.

I was forced to play piano when I was kid. I liked it for about 2 years, when I was 5 to 7 years old. Then I started hating it and it was the source of so much yelling and screaming. My mom kept insisting that I play for "10 years", until I was 15.

Isn't that cruel? Forcing a 7 year old to play for 8 more years ? I remember how incredibly long that seemed. For 8 straight years it was always, "I want to quit" and more yelling and screaming.

This is completely bizarre to me. How did Chinese parents get this idea in their heads? In all your wisdom, Niniane, please find out where this came from. I feel like some evil piano teacher must have brainwashed an entire country.

I mean, it isn't even Chinese music. I don't get why Chinese parents love a narrow period of Western classical music so much. Why not play some Chinese music?

Anonymous said...

One more peculiar point.

Only the eldest child are force to learn to play. The younger children usually are not force to play.

Are younger siblings are not important ?

But, usually the younger siblings are more eager to learn because they view the older sibling as getting to much attention from the parents.

Anonymous said...

my daughter started piano lesson when she was 4. one of us(my wife and myself) is always sitting through the class and learns alone with her.

so far she likes it and we are just having fun.

along the way, she also learns valuable lessons like don't give up too easily, and being confident in herself when performing in front of a large audience.

of course, if she doesn't like it then we won't force her.

btw, we are Chinese who came to this country 10 years ago.

Anonymous said...

> I don't get why Chinese parents love a narrow period of Western classical music so much.

A way to 'move up' in society.

Anonymous said...

I think Asian pare ts use it as a way to turn the kid into something they can control
or just to live out their dreams
I also feel like the parents use it as a way to stop creativity(my parents stopped my guitar lessons for the same reasons)
and I think that Asian parents like to show off their kids and save face(my parents don't do that with me mainly because I don't have any banal qualities to me, such as playing the piano or dressing like my cousins do)

Anonymous said...

I agree to a point - although I have to say that children (especially these days), need some pushing. I don't think Asian parents do it the "right" way (i.e. they are too forceful), but I don't think children have the right instincts either.

I was forced to learn classical piano for 10 yrs - competing and everything - got my ass kicked on a regular basis. I quit because I couldn't take the rigidity, but I always loved music...

I'm actually thankful for the skills all the training gave me (and very thankful to my crazy mom who picked me up from school during lunch everyday to practise for 30 min.).... because I did end up becoming a musician, composer and music teacher. It took me a while to get to it, but I am lucky that I did actually love music in general and had the opportunity to explore other styles later on.

That being said, I just hate it when Asian parents use the classical music thing to show off their kids. It's revolting.

If a child is talented and likes music, I think it should be nurtured. However, if the child sucks or just plain hates it completely, they should just call it.

In the end, at least Asian parents mean well. They aren't complacent with letting their kids be mediocre or less (regardless if it's ego-related) and the children at least get some kind of "attention" geared toward their intellectual development.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for posting this. I believe it is an important topic. I have a grown daughter who quit piano at 12 and has never regretted it. I was so happy she finally made that wise choice for herself. She took lessons for 6 years and kept vacillating about continuing for the last 2 of them.

I was wondering...did your piano teacher(s) ever notice how miserable you were? Did you hide it well? Or were they too afraid to talk to your mom?

I am a mother of a child who loves the piano. She asked for years when she would get to take lessons like her sister. She would go to the piano and tinker with it and I would worry that if I took her, she would grow to hate it, but right away she loved it and poured herself into it. Music is her thing. She is now 13 and she says she loves it and I do NOT force her to have lessons or to practice, but I notice, and so does she, many kids who never look happy at competitions or recitals. Are they nervous only, or are they miserable that they must do this? I see some of the parents react badly when their child makes a mistake. One mother and father got up and left the room while their child was playing because of mistakes. It was awful. I was embarrassed! Why can't they let it go? Even if my daughter who still loves it after many years comes to hate it...she will be free! I have no desire to push her to do something she doesn't want to. I love what you wrote about what it does to someone to push them. I feel like printing it on a t-shirt!

Thanks again,

Unknown said...

I think parents should play the musical instrument WITH the child, not just yell at the child to practice practice practice. I "jam" with my 4 year old daughter every night when she plays her violin. After every song, I would reward her with a little snack or let her stamp a little star on her song book. Children have very short attention spans. Parents need to be creative and fun to be with, not harsh and impatient.

An Asian parent of a 4 year old violinist from Singapore.

Happy music making!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm chinese and I learnt the piano when I was 7 and received a diploma in performance when i was 15. I started teaching the piano and making almost 700 dollars over the weekend for only 18 hrs or less of teaching.
My colleagues at work (I have two jobs, I work during the week in an office), some of whom were forced to play the piano when they were little, but quit as they did not like it, listen to my story of how much I make and they regret that they did not listen to their parents and continue on with their piano, reminiscing how much money they could make if they had kept going with learning and start teaching too. I have saved 50 grand in my first year of working.
Sometimes you should listen to your parents - you never know the monetary benefits it can bring you..

Anonymous said...

I am 12 and I am currently being forced into playing the piano. I go home and the first thing I have to do is play piano. As well as this, my mother keeps threatening to stop sending me to school and to stop my tennis lessons. Otherwise, my mum is a terrific mum, but I think this is going to far. I have to spend 1 hour (not a lot compared to others) toiling away at the piano, while in my mind I know I have tonnes of homework. My mum criticizes my studies, but she doesn't give me time to study. This is driving me crazy, so could somebody help me?

Adam Sweet said...

1st world problems LOL

anonymous said...

Nice article, so I've been searching everywhere for at least one article backing up the claim that chinese children have been cutting off fingers due to the piano - I couldn't find any.


Anonymous said...

finally!!!!!!!!!my mom has been making me play violin for 6 years and i hate it, despise it. She keeps saying that ill thank her later but i dont think i will. I dont want to become a violinist or pianoist. She has also forced me to play piano for 11 years but she finally let me quit only so i could do more of violin which makes me hate it EVEN MORE

I should show her this

That Chinese Kid in LA Honors said...

My parents are forcing me to take piano and threaten to take my laptop away if I decide to quit. I'm going to start playing the trombone soon, and will get my revenge by BLAAATing at 6 AM.

Anonymous said...

I am currently being forced to the piano and the violin. :( I always talk to my parents about why I should quit. I agree that it is wrong to do something if you don't enjoy it. Where would the learning come from? Don't disagree with me just because I'm young. Every time I ask my parents, "Why do I need to play the piano/violin?" They always reply with, "You will thank me later and it is important to know." I don't see any reason with this. My dad always refers to it as my "job" or "duties." If I skip 1, yes, 1 day, my dad will get mad and spank me with a yardstick. (TMI?) Anyways, the thing is, I just can't convince my parents to let me quit piano. I'm somewhat ok with the violin. They also force me to be on a swim team. I've been complaining about the swim team for at least 4 years, complaining about the piano for at least 3 years, and complaining about the violin for at least 1 year. I offered them that I would play 2 extra instruments to quit piano. I abhor the piano that much. They still force me to play piano. I'm asking for advice from someone/anyone that can either give me a reasonable answer on why I should play, or tell me how I can explain to my parents in a good way that won't get me killed. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Some people back up their claims for playing the piano with, "Make good money, good talent to know, makes you more creative, etc." Music plays a big part in psychology, but I don't see a reason in having to be forced to play an instrument. Your parents may have you play an instrument so you can get into a good college. Sometimes, your parents just want you to play the piano because they are ashamed that they didn't get a chance to learn an instrument when they were young. You can explain to them reasons on why you want to quit, and help them realize why they want you to play the piano. You should be able to make your own choices, as this leads to you doing what your choices make you do. Parents should not be able to make YOUR choices just because they "own" you.

Anonymous said...

I've been doing piano for about 9 years. Last year I told my parents I wanted to quit, I lost interest as I was getting older. Now it's just the worst thing in my life. My parents told me that I had to continue to level 9, so I could get a credit for highschool. I always argued "Why can't I just do more thing during those years I need credits?!?!?!" But in the end I have to continue. If I asked why I need to continue they would say like you can get a credit,it can go on your resume, or this is good for you. And if I said that none of my friends do it why do I, my mom would say their lazy, their parents don't push them to do it. I'm doing into grade 8 this year, I also have English tutoring every week. I very stressed because I need to pick a highschool, courses, a practical exam in August, and homework from tutoring. My parents always tell me I can take care of myself and I can make my own decisions. I made a decision that I wanted to stop piano, but they say I can't because I'm to young to decide that. HOW DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?!?!?!? Idf they let me make my own decision, I should be able to decide whether I should stop or continue. My cousin stopped at a young age because she lost interest, why can't I? What difference does it make if I stop, all it does is get me annoyed and frustrated. Whether they change my teacher, or anything I will never have any interest left for it.

Anonymous said...

I think Asian parents should keep doing this because it's helps their kids a lot in life, parents like this have kids that success in life compared to some American or European kids who their parents let them do what they want. Forcing their kids to play musical instruments is nothing, in the beginning the kid will be stressed, will hate his parents but after 6-7 years of piano practicing the kid won't be anxious or furious anymore but music will help the kid relax indeed.

Anonymous said...

Serious, i was forced to play the piano for 9 years, wanted to quit the 2nd year in. Parents of course threw the line " in the future you'll thank me". 12th grade now, shy, barely talk to anyone, afraid to do presentation, anxiety. That's all it gave me, don't forget the constant shouting from bad grades from piano which also affected my school grades leading to more shouting. Not to mention not having a sibling to back you up, at many points i wanted to suicide but i always hope something good will happen

elana r. snyder said...

Im not asian, but was forced to play for 5 years. a few years later when my parents lost their home we moved into an apartment and the piano was in the living room, my father would then tell me that I was not allowed to play or practice because it disrupted his television watching. There were all sorts of abusive as well as pretty severe neglect in the adoptive household and I did end up having to cut off all contact with the age of 26. No I do not own a piano if I did I might play a little bit but I wish that I had been introduced to guitar, neither one of my parents seem to have any interest in music whatsoever so forcing me to take piano lessons wAs Ludacris

elana r. snyder said...

Im also only child. Still hate it at 53

Anonymous said...

My parents gave me the option of choosing what instrument I'd like to learn to play when I was in the eighth grade; I chose the bass guitar. But after a year of neighbors complaining of my playing (I'd crank up my amp pretty loud sometimes), and my bedroom window shattering from the bass notes, I was told I'd either have to practice with headphones or give up the bass altogether. There was no way I was going to play bass with tinny sounding headphones on. It was with my amp or nothing else. So, since I was too stubborn to be reasonable my dad put an ad in the classifieds and sold my guitar. I was pissed but I got over it.